What the blood-red supermoon eclipse and doomsday cults teach us about marketing | DMA

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What the blood-red supermoon eclipse and doomsday cults teach us about marketing


The recent blood-red supermoon and eclipse prompted one doomsday cult to claim the world would end on Wednesday 7 October. Doomsday cults teach us a very useful lesson about human behaviour which has important implications for marketers

In the mid 1950s, psychologist Leon Festinger led a team looking at a doomsday cult run by a Chicago-based housewife Dorothy Martin. Like all decent doomsday cult leaders, Martin had aquired a dedicated band of followers, many of whom had abandoned their jobs and previous lives to devote themselves to the cult. They were known as The Seekers.

The prophecy went something like this: aliens from planet Clarion spoke through Martin. They informed her that the Supreme Being was rather annoyed with the inhabitants of Earth, and would drown everyone, and start a new planet by raising the sea bed up to be the new planet surface. Nobody would survive, and doomsday would come on Christmas Eve 1955.

Actually the mythology was more bizarre and detailed and involved flying saucers, other alien races and a smattering of book-of-revelation-style Christianity too. But you get the general idea.


Much like this new blood-red supermoon eclipse prophecy at the beginning of October 2015, the doomsday came and went. But what happened to the cult next was was interesting, and formed the basis of Festinger's book, When Prophecies Fail and from there the psychological notion of cognitive dissonance.

Out of the original Seekers, two groups emerged. First - those on the periphery of the cult. They saw the failure of the prophecy as a failing of the organisation. They realised that the prophecy had to be nonsense, and moved on. This is what you would expect to happen.

But those at the centre of the cult did the reverse. When the doomsday passed, their belief increased, not decreased, and they became increasingly fanatical. They looked at reasons why the prophecy must have been interpreted incorrectly, and planned with renewed vigour for a new apocalypse. An identical thing happened with the blood-red supermoon eclipse group.

But why?

Festinger saw that in both cases that the minds of the cult members held two contradictory, or dissonant, beliefs. For their minds to adapt and deal with this dissonance, something had to change.

Belief vs disappointment

For all the cult members, there was a tension between belief and disappointment when the doomsday failed to materialise.

Those on the periphery had less intense belief. When the disappointment proved strong, it overpowered their belief in the cult. In this case, they decided that because they were still standing, the prophecy must be rubbish. So they abandoned their belief and the cult.

For the more committed, their minds held this same tension. But because their belief was stronger than their disappointment, the belief won. When the doomsday came and went and they were still standing, they abandoned their disappointment instead and kept believing.

Following his book, Festinger was joined by another psychologist, J Merrill Carlsmith, and they tested this idea of a mind in tension, or dissonance, in the lab.

To pay or not to pay?

They asked two groups of students to do some boring tasks - pointlessly filling and emptying boxes or turning pegs. Some were paid a reasonable amount, some paid a pittance, and some were not paid at all.

The surprise came in the results - those that were paid said they found the boring task to be more boring than those who were not paid. What's more, the more the students were paid, the less they enjoyed the task. It seems counter-intuative. Actually, it beautifully demonstrates congnitive dissonance.

For both sets of students, the question in their mind would be something like: 'this is boring - why am I doing it?' - this is the cognitive dissonance.

How the groups resolved this in their minds differed.

For those that were paid, they had a justification for doing the boring task - payment. The greater the payment, the greater the justification. I'm only doing it for the money.

Those that were not paid did not have this justification, so to square their activity, they rated the task as somewhat enjoyable instead. Otherwise, why were they doing it?

Cognitive dissonance

People are sensitive to these conflicting ideas, or put another way, this cognitive dissonance.

When people experience this kind of conflict, they will try to resolve the inconsistencies in three main ways.

Let's say you disapprove of smoking, but find yourself having a puff, you have to resolve this inconsistency. You could:

  • Change your beliefs - "actually, I do smoke."
  • Change your resolve - "my smoking was an aberration and I'll NEVER do it again."
  • Change your perception - "I was stressed", or celebrating, or really something that explains it away, makes it palatable or acceptable.

What are the implications of all this?

Well, for brands, it shows that actions are important.

Once a consumer does something, then they justify this behaviour.

This is why brand loyalty, once built, is difficult to break.

It's why brands are keen for consumers to try something new because once they have, then then no longer have to justify why. It's why the Pepsi Challenge ran for so long and was so successful. People who do not drink Pepsi not only drank it, but said they preferred it. They must prefer it.

Actually the truth is that Pepsi is sweeter, and in such a limited test, sweetness is about all you could distinguish, so sweetest won. But it would be enough to cause this dissonance in the mind of the person taking the test. Interestingly, the latest version of the Pepsi Challenge still runs, and still focuses on change.

The recent Dr Pepper's campaign 'What's the worst that could happen', also attempts this to do this.

It's why incumbents always have the advantage in an election - the fact that your Prime Minister or President is doing the job justifies him being there in the mind of the electorate. Even if you disagree with him or her. The argument is circular, but the impact is significant.

If your last campaign fall a little flat? If it did, look at your colleagues. Were those who weren't really convinced about the campaign the first to stick their boot it? Were the believers explaining why things went awry? It's cognitive dissonance at work.

So for your next campaign, think about the world ending, and what you will do once it's over (hint: it won't be over).

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